At Medium I wrote about the strangeness of writers being congratulated for the “great material” of a difficult childhood
I’ve started occasionally posting at Medium for fun. Three times is occasionally, right?
- Turning People Into Demons: Like QAnon believers, my preacher mom projected Satan onto people she didn’t like
- Don’t Write the Tedious Thing: At times I thought I had to include this or that thing in my book, then remembered I could do whatever I wanted
- Ancestor-Focused Spiritual Practices: Sent as one of my Ancestor Hunger newsletters in summer 2019
Hi. I’m told my book is headed into production soon, and it will be out in early 2022. Whew, and hooray! Date and title to come. I’m excited for you to read it, if you’d like to.
Meanwhile, my old Ancestor Hunger newsletter is warming up in the driveway. I’m aiming to send new dispatches every two weeks. Here are the recent ones:
- Lineage Unconscious: On Jung and family symbols, including some of mine: black cats and mugwort, acorns and oaks, cardinals and quartz, clover and seashells. Also singing.
- Other People’s Family Stories: Including some from Maaza Mengiste, Alexander Chee, and Elizabeth Bachner that I’ve particularly cherished as I’ve been holed up the past couple years.
I didn’t intend to disappear from this site for so long, but the book and my other job kept me busy. And in the unlikely event you were wondering what I was up to in the midst of a pandemic and election and attack on the freaking Capitol and so forth, my Twitter feed probably filled you in.
Recently, though, I deleted all my tweets over a month old in disgust over what social media hath wrought in our democracy and the idea that it was monetizing me in the process. Mostly I feel glad that I did this, and freer, but it was a rash act. I’ve been tweeting since 2008. I often used my archives to remember articles and interviews I’d enjoyed but misplaced. Although I downloaded them before deleting, I don’t see myself perusing the file in the same way.
My personal Facebook page has been blessedly abandoned for three years, so deleting just about everything there didn’t feel difficult at all, though Zuckerberg & Co. do not make it easy and only the insurrection prompted me to sit my ass down for all the hours it took to make it so.
In any case, as my mom used to say in her most theatrical Texan way when I kept trying to reach her, and couldn’t, and did finally: Here I ahhm!
A super-smart fact-checker I was working with on my book late last year called this site the most 2000s blog, design-wise, they’d ever seen, and I could only agree! I also thought, ha ha, you brilliant youngster, you didn’t even see the original paint spatter background (captured in part below) that Max made on actual paper at our kitchen table or the “more subtle” graph paper background we decided on a couple years later.
Truly, it has been a journey here at MaudNewton.com, which will soon undergo a proper redesign. Here’s hoping you’re as well as you can possibly be in these times.
I’ve gotten increasingly into container gardening since moving to Queens three years ago, slowly educating myself about welcoming bees, butterflies, and birds, and tending soil. Some of the containers are large elevated beds.
It’s a bit of a tangle now, in late summer, but my winged friends approve. I’m reminding myself that “going to seed” isn’t always a bad thing. This morning I saw two monarch butterflies and some bumblebees flitting around the Joe Pye Weed—in the backyard, where it’s not as sun-ravaged. For ten minutes or so, the butterflies dove and flew, and drank from the flowers. They left only when a cell phone was pointed at them for a picture. Some beauty is best experienced in the moment, in motion, anyhow.
On the suggestion of the novelist Maureen Gibbon, I’m reading Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts, which can be enjoyed in pretty much any order. I often think of Alexander Chee’s insights on the compatibility of writing and plant-tending.
I don’t usually cross-post from my newsletter, but I’m making an exception here. This might be my last post before the site is finally redesigned.
If you’ve been reading my work for a while, you may know that my mom started a church in my living room when I was a kid. It was a tongues-speaking, Rapture-awaiting, exorcism-full ministry focused on hippies, drug addicts, refugees from cults, and assorted others in need. Every Wednesday night, they worshipped in our house in a ritzy Miami suburb. They banged tambourines and Hallelujahed and bound up Satan in Jesus’ name until my father came home and shouted at them to get out or until the neighbors called the cops.
For most of my life, I feared I might have some extreme religious conversion, too. As an adult, after trying on atheism and then Episcopalianism and not feeling a commitment to either, I responded to this fear by becoming a fervent agnostic. I was deeply committed to not knowing. I clenched around uncertainty, all the more so once I learned that my mom wasn’t the only female preacher in her family.
Around the time I turned forty, I started meditating. I studied the Alexander Technique, which, as taught by my teacher, is basically another form of meditation. His approach is especially good for writers and other bookish people who have difficulty being in their bodies. Through all of this, and a billion years of therapy, I opened up to possibilities that had made me anxious before.
When I started writing my book, I could feel myself going in a spiritual direction. I was afraid of what I’d find and where I’d end up, but I decided to follow where the book led me. Recently I went to an ancestral lineage healing intensive, and I’m going to another this summer. It makes me uncomfortable to tell you this, but I’ve decided to own it.
I hand in the draft of my book on June 3! I’m starting another newsletter, Ancestor Hunger, for anyone who’s interested in knowing more about that. You can sign up at Substack, if you’re interested. (More info on the About page.)
Updated August 6 to link to the Ancestor Hunger newsletters so far:
- The Family Face — and Gesture (including Thomas Hardy’s “Heredity,” Tim Spector’s Identically Different, and Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know)
- Ancestor-Focused Spiritual Practices (including book recommendations, the Biblical story of Rachel and the household gods, and some people who’ve inspired me)
- Visits From the Dead (including Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books and Claude Lecouteux’s The Return of the Dead)
- Knowledge at an Atomic Level (Sarah Smarsh’s writing—in Heartland and elsewhere—on poverty and its generational echoes)
- Nothing Destroys a Family Like Inheritance (the title is from a line in an essay by Alexander Chee, keeper of his family’s genealogical records, who writes about inheritance, an ancestor ritual, much more)
- Ancestors Who Enslaved People (including two of mine who did)
- DNA Testing Giveth, and Taketh Away (including Alex Wagner’s Futureface, which I reviewed last year for the New York Times Book Review; a discussion of autosomal DNA testing and inaccurate geographical assignments; and an except from my old Family Tree interview with Laila Lalami)
- Sharing Some Ancestor Hunger (on my granny and the title “ancestor hunger,” and including an excerpt from my Family Tree interview with Celeste Ng)
- Fear of the Family Ghost (including Bertrand Russell’s fear, and the Family Ghosts podcast)
Hope you’re all getting by — not a given in these times, I know.
I see it’s been a very long time since I updated here, so I thought I’d post a little dispatch from my bunker of hurricane worry in Queens.
Today Catapult featured my most recent Tiny Letter, “Notes From the Child of a White Supremacist.” Nicole Chung asked me a few questions about it and the newsletter more generally. (A few weeks ago, the same newsletter was translated into Italian and featured in Corriere della Sera.)
A few other things:
- Nieman Storyboard ran a little Q&A with me about my old essay, “I, Rodent“
- At the end of 2016, I wrote an essay for the Awl’s year-end series, “my other life.” It’s called “Fundamentalist Horror Film.”
- Here’s an old video of my puppy, Daisy, helping me open a package. She’s a year and three months old now, a grown dog, almost.
Some readers asked if I would consider making my latest newsletter dispatch public, so they could link to it. So I posted it at Medium. It’s about, among other things, how I briefly became a tax lawyer (like and unlike my father), and how important it is for us, in politics, always to keep one eye on the money. Especially now.
It’s always fine to forward the newsletters, or to quote from them. As I’ve said, I don’t ordinarily post them online because I like the veneer of privacy. But once they’re out in the world I’m not invested in trying to control where they end up.
I can’t say the results of the election took me by surprise. Worrying that a Trump win could be coming didn’t dull the horror of the reality, though.
I’m trying not to give in to despair and not to let myself be distracted by the daily onslaught of his racist appointments, trammeling of civil rights, and blatant malfeasances.
For the moment, over at my Tumblr, I’m posting an action a day to oppose what he’s already doing. The most important one is to call the House Oversight Committee (202-225-5074) and insist on a bipartisan investigation of his financials and apparent conflicts of interest. I’ve posted many other ideas in the past couple weeks if you’re not sure where to start.
Lately I’ve been focused on unpacking, meeting the birds and trees in the nabe, writing my book, and doing my other job. I’ve been disinclined to take on much beyond that, but yesterday I sent my first Tiny Letter since January, and it felt good. I’m always glad when a description I give at the beginning of something fits what I end up doing with it, and this one does: Ideas & Intimacies.
The letters aren’t archived online–I like the veneer of privacy–but unless I’m working on a new one, I usually send the latest to new subscribers.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn since 1999, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, even Miami. It’s been good in many ways but also difficult for me. City life tends to exacerbate my anxiety. I’ve missed living near wild green places.
I’m sure I’d have a much harder time leaving New York than I realize, but I’d be happy to give it a try, if not for Max. The city is his soul-home. He can’t imagine leaving the communities of artists and musicians he’s part of — living anywhere that doesn’t have a Stereographic Association, for instance. After all these years, he still endlessly and lovingly photographs the subway. Even the asphalt seems to nourish him. We’re both introverts, but we have different needs.
So we’re moving, as people sometimes do in this situation, pretty far out into Queens. We’ll still be on a subway line but also right next to Forest Park, a hilly stretch of land with hiking trails and tangles of trees, bordered by lots of cemeteries. I’m going to get a puppy. At least for now, we’re not getting a car.
We don’t move for nine days, but: goodbye, Brooklyn! Thanks, and fare thee well. I’m sure I’ll still see you pretty often. Excited to get to know you, Queens.
The publication party for The Queen of the Night, the magnificent second novel by my dear friend Alexander Chee, is tomorrow night at McNally Jackson. I was stunned and so happy when he asked me to discuss the book with him there.
Alex and I became friends before I read his first book. An instant easy understanding was possible between us that might have been impossible if I’d encountered Edinburgh — which is wonderful and true and utterly its own thing — before I knew him. Over the years he has become a kind of muse for me, as well as a confidant and advisor, though I don’t think I ever put it to myself quite that way until I just typed the words just now.
He says he sees our conversation tomorrow night as an extension of the many we’ve had over the years. Most of those happened in private, obviously, but I’ve written about a few of them before: On creating the feeling you want the reader to feel; After the affair (on Jean Rhys and Ford Madox Ford); Some company for slow writers; and his amazing ancestry books.
I wrote about science and self and wanted and unwanted rodents: I, Rodent.
This is probably the strangest essay I’ve published to date. I like it a lot.
I keep meaning to mention that Best American Travel Writing 2015 is out and, as promised, it includes my short NYT Mag essay, “A Doubter in the Holy Land.” I’ve been reading my way through the collection and finding so many great things I missed when they were published last year, including Rachael Maddux’s “Hail Daton.”
Today my friend Sarah Smarsh told me that my Harper’s essay, “America’s Ancestry Craze,” is listed as a notable essay at the back of the new Best American Essays. (Her great essay on the shame of poor teeth in a rich world is, too.) This is gratifying, because the Harper’s essay led to the book I’m writing, which in turn has led to my inability to write much of anything else until it’s done. Not complaining! It’s just nice to know people are still reading my older stuff.
After I hand in a rough-rough draft of my current book chapter, I’m planning to start on the one that’s most related to the Lives essay. I’ve been reading widely for months in preparation, and I’ll also go back and reread everything linked from my 2014 Begats post on whether faith “has a genetic basis.”
It’s strange to talk to friends, especially old friends, about meditation, even when they ask about it. It’s been so helpful to me, and I’m glad to share my experience when it might help someone else, but I’m also by nature averse to proselytizing. I really don’t ever want to hearken back to the fundamentalist kid me on church outings in public parks, interrupting happy picnics to hand people Jack Chick tracts about how their life is all wrong.
And also, there’s a part of me that still feels answerable to the person I have seen myself as being most of my life, the person attached to pessimism and cynicism and depression and to, on occasion, throwing my entire self, directing all of my energy and passion, into raging against injustice. I have conversations with that person in my head all the time. Which is complicated, because that person was a product of a lot of influences and experiences. That person was inconsistent and always changing, too.
Buddhism (that’s the path I’ve been heading down, after a lifetime of secretly feeling scornful of Westerners who called themselves Buddhist) holds that there is no such thing as a cohesive self, that second to second we are in flux, always transforming, and that if we allow ourselves to observe our thoughts and feelings in meditation without being caught up in them we can see how illusory our sense of a fixed identity really is. We can see how our narratives about ourselves and life and other people are actually much more complicated (and in my case, much more embarrassing and immature) than we think they are.
For me, in the moment, meditation is usually the opposite of bliss. The kind I do doesn’t focus on clearing the mind but on letting the thoughts and feelings be there without following them, letting them exist while returning over and over again to my breath. Sitting with myself like this can be and often is excruciatingly uncomfortable, but cumulatively it makes me feel better: less anxious, less depressed, less manic, less detached, and less angry, though at any given time I might be experiencing all of these things. My practice is especially valuable to me right now, after the loss of my friend Nelson and with many people I Iove going through very hard stuff.
Pema Chödrön writes of difficult feelings — and joyous feelings — as clouds overhead. They’re there, and they affect us, and there’s no point in chasing them as they move through our lives, and there’s no point in fighting them or trying to push them away, either. They’re ever-present and inevitable as the weather. It feels better when we accept that, is the idea. It feels better when we see our feelings for what they are, when we know them intimately and embrace the whole confusing swirl.
One of my favorite parts of my favorite book of hers, Start Where You Are, talks about how the beginner to meditation wants to master everything at once, wants to change immediately and irrevocably into a better self. But, she says, “the truth sinks in like rain into very hard earth. The rain is very gentle, and we soften up slowly at our own speed. But when that happens, something has fundamentally changed in us. That hard earth has softened. It doesn’t seem to happen by trying to get to it or capture it. It happens by letting go.”
Something that made me sad, then happy, then sad after my friend Nelson died was finding our email exchange about how he wanted to start writing again.
And thank you for thinking me a writer, or at least having the seed — I know that having the chops requires craft. And craft requires time, sweat and not a little bit of Jameson’s. I thought about what you said, though. Maybe essays would be a start; the idea of writing the great American novel is outside both my ability and my reality. I am starting to think that reading email for a living has reduced my attention span a bit too much for that level of dedication. Sad, that. But words will always fascinate and entertain me, so if they find a way to come out in a way that someone else would enjoy — that would be something. Thankfully, some of them entertained you enough that summer to call me in the first place.
He sent this soon after the last time we saw each other in New York, in November 2012, right before Hurricane Sandy. I remember being so glad he was thinking this way. The letters he wrote to me while he was in the army — I’ve written about that era a few times — were a joy. I hoped he’d find his way back to the page.
Nelson and I first got to know each other in a high school writing class — the one I took my senior year that also led me to my friend Lili, who died ten years ago of pancreatic cancer, and to our teacher, Mrs. Kjos, who died of ovarian cancer in 2008. I guess this is what being in your forties is like.
Last night I dreamed that I was reading a collection of short stories Nelson had written, a book he self-published knowing he would die soon. In the dream he was still alive. Waking up this morning was the most bittersweet thing.
“The Brooklyn artist Maximus Clarke addresses a surveillance society in ‘Render,’ three panels with human figures that have to be viewed through 3-D glasses — and, in keeping with the theme, park rangers will be milling around.”
See it at the the old fort on Governor’s Island, as part of the Governor’s Island Art Fair, in September!
Nelson Almeyda, one of my best friends, died today after living with cancer for more than a year. He was one of the most big-hearted people I’ve known, one of the funniest, sharpest, most expressive and most beloved, and also one of the most private. He was in fact so private about his troubles, so invested in being the one who helped other people and not needing help himself, that even now it almost feels like a violation to be posting this here.
My thoughts are especially with his wife, Mary, and their young daughter, and also the rest of his family and all his many friends, particularly those who were with him at the end. If you’re Googling around, bereft, because you knew him and cared about him, please rest assured he cared about you too, no matter how long it’s been since you were in touch.
In surface ways Nelson and I didn’t have much in common. We had extremely different temperaments and few shared interests or friends, and only one of us was an irredeemable nerd, and it wasn’t him. But there was always an intuitive understanding between us, a sort of emotional affinity that I’ve had with very few people.
As Max says, there aren’t enough people like Nelson in the world. I will love and miss him always.
Updated August 13 to add: His very fitting obituary appears in today’s issue of The Charlotte Observer. The memorial service will be held at Heritage Funeral and Cremation Services in Charlotte on Friday, August 14, at 3 p.m. More details are available at the Heritage site.
There’s something beautiful about grieving on the internet, all of us offering up our losses to each other, hoping to be touched and understood by each other when we’re at our lowest and most vulnerable, and there’s also something strange about expressing grief here. No matter how true and deep our sadness, when we offer it up online, it can get confusing. It can feel less real, but also more final.
My heart is heavy with sadness and love, for an old friend and his family, and for all of us.
Writing so much about my early life recently has brought back a slew of memories, and with them some of the first poems I memorized at school. I taught this one, by Jessica Nelson North, to Autumn when she was a girl, and she loved it.
I had a little tea party
This afternoon at three.
‘Twas very small—
Three guests in all—
Just I, myself and me.
Myself ate all the sandwiches,
While I drank up the tea;
‘Twas also I who ate the pie
And passed the cake to me.
I haven’t thought much about the other that’s been knocking around in my head — Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing” — since I learned it way back when. Now I can’t wait to teach them to my niece (three) and nephews (both four) the next time I visit.
Also, to try to describe a swing with a view of “Rivers and trees and cattle and all / Over the countryside” — an exotic thing to imagine even when I was young.
My mom was something like a mommy-blogger, in 1973. From the time I was two to two-and-a-half, she wrote these astoundingly detailed letters about our lives and me and Miami, typed them up in quintuplicate, and mailed them to the whole family. I have multiple copies of some of them.
They’re an amazing resource for my book, and they prove, as she’s always claimed and I’ve doubted, that I was talking in complete sentences when I turned two. Apparently I was also always concerned with remembering everything that happened.
On the one hand the letters make me happy, because I can verrrry hazily remember some of what she describes, and because they’re so full of pride and love, but they also make me sad, because I can see how lonely she was.